"HISTORY IS A DREAM that strays into innocent sleep," we are told in this remarkable collection of short fiction. Leonardo Da Vinci invents a bicycle and imagines ranks of soldiers riding it into battle, "a phalanx of these due rote bearing lancers at full tilt." The history of photography is recounted, from the days when any movement simply erased the image from the artist's plate. A Greek reporter, contemporary of Marcus Aurelius, looks about and remarks, "How old the world!"
The world, Guy Davenport instructs us, is all a matter of perception. Da Vinci's Bicycle is a set of imaginative exercises on characters who do not match up with our memory of the past. Leonardo inventing a bicycle in 1493 certainly qualifies, but look at Davenport's other choices: Gertrude Stein reading the comics to Picasso, Greek philosophers inventing a mechanical pigeon, Richard Nixon bombing the DMZ to impress his host, Chairman Mao. Our very nature is formed by how we see history, Davenport's technique suggests. Or, as one of his figures insists, "The Mind is what it knows! It is nothing else at all, at all."
Davenport's fiction is appealing and attractive, then, because deep down it reflects the way our imaginations create a world. A better correspondence between the act of reading and the act of writing would be hard to find, and so it's fitting that the Johns Hopkins University Press, publisher of those heady structuralist and deconstructionist tracts by Rene Girard and Jacques Derrida, should begin its fiction program with a book like Da Vinci's Bicycle.
But Davenport does not stop with mere method. Each of his stories is embellished with scores of quirky little touches, things a reader will remember long after the plot has been forgotten. Ezra Pound's anecdote of how the body of William Butler Yeats was lost at sea by a drunken navy crew, Nietzsche signing the guest book at a Rapallo inn with the admonition, "Beware the beefsteak" - these are the incidental clothes in which Davenport dresses his methodological fictions. And as with any good fiction, they are the deft touches of the master which tell us all.
Therefore the history of photography, summarized in one of these cautionary tales, shows how this most modern of aesthetic media catches the spirit of our consciousness for history. "A photograph of Lenin reading Iskra at a Zurich cafe accidentally includes over to the left James and Nora Joyce haggling with a taxi driver about the fare," we read, and are delighted as only someone of our own times and manners could be. "A Philadelphia photographer made several plates of paleolithic horse fossils at the Museum of Natural History," we read on. "In one of the pictures two gentlemen stand in the background, spectators at the museum. One wears a top hat and looks with neurotic intelligence at the camera. He is Edgar Allan Poe. The other gentleman is cross-eyed and wears a beret. God knows who he is."
The point, which Davenport's fiction has made clear in its process, is that "for the first time in the history of art the accidental became the controlling iconography of a representation of the world."
The camera, by its very rigidity, rattles our perception and makes us see things we never noticed were there. Fiction should do the same thing, but after years of dominance by one style it takes an innovator like Guy Davenport to shake matters up and make stories in a slightly different way. Even within his tales he reminds us that all is provisional and comparative. Several actions take place at once, and the reader is asked to consider the Paris of the moderns with the rites of primitive ritual - a technique Picasso used in these same days, and which Davenport reinvents for fiction. Sometimes it's done by metaphor, as in the reduced circumstances of a once mighty man: "O Lady Mouse, I breathe, your well wisher here who has come to visit, the round of nothing before you in this fine grass, was the emperor of Rome." Fine writing and fresh perceptions are the mutually shared joys of Guy Davenport's fiction. Reading it is a life experience.
Da Vinci's Bicycle complements Davenport's first collection of stories, Tatlin!, published in 1974. His concern there was to show the modern age at the edge of history - Kafka and Max Brod attending an air show and by chance meeting Wittgenstein; Picasso, still a realist, admiring the cave paintings at Altamira; Cezanne and Lenin struggling to shape the modern revolutionary mind.
This new volume encompasses a broader range of experience, proving that Davenport's talent is well grounded and that his rearrangements of history have more to offer than mere movelty. His fiction itself is like "a dream that strays into innocent sleep." The dreamer's work, with the writer's, is necessary to know one's self. "Everything," these stories tell us, "is an incongruity if you study it well." CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, from the book